Imagination as Escapism; Imagination as Exploration

I’ve always had an active imagination; I was the kid who could be left alone in my room for hours, totally immersed in whatever story I had concocted for my My Little Ponies. But when I went through some trauma in middle school, imagination filled a new role for me. Essentially, it allowed me to cope with a world that didn’t meet many of my needs, in which I didn’t feel like a whole person. There was something so complete and gratifying in the places I went in my imagination that I spent almost all my time there.

Life got better in high school and college, but by that time, the habit was firmly entrenched. I lived so many years with only one foot in the real world, the other always in an imaginary one. On a deep level, I was afraid to fully live my own life, because I thought that would weaken my connection to my imaginative one. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray around that time, and there’s a scene in which Dorian is turned off by his love interest, Sybil, because she no longer acts with such passion in the plays he watches. She confesses that, after she’s felt real love with him, play-acting at love is empty and meaningless. I never wanted my imagination to feel empty or meaningless, to feel any less real. So I guarded it viciously, and pushed away many experiences that might have pulled me away from it. In particular, I was reluctant about falling in love, afraid that the reality could never live up to the million ways I’d imagined and experienced it in my mind. How could I ever commit myself to just one lover, who got only me, when in my mind I got to experience it again and again from a hundred different perspectives? All, of course, while remaining perfectly safe.

My world was shattered again in 2006, and I realized then that something had to change. Living in my mind just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It took me about a year to find a place of balance, where I could keep my feet firmly planted in my own life and still indulge the journeys of my mind. But then the big one came in 2010: I started a relationship with the man I would marry, and it was so scary and so wonderful and so exhilarating that I knew this was for real. I felt myself standing on that precipice, when you know your whole life is about to change.

During that time, what I’d feared about the tension between reality and imagination proved true–for a while. I was in love, I was obsessed, and it was hard for me to write about anything except him and what I was feeling. It was hard for me to immerse myself in writing fiction, to get lost in dreams that weren’t about us. My real life demanded more from me, and there was less for me to give my imagination; or, my imagination was co-opted by my real life and what I might make of it.

Now that I’ve been married for a little over a year, things are starting to settle. I remember that when I once expressed my fears about real life “ruining” my creative life, a friend of mine disagreed. She told me that real life could make your creative life even better by enriching your experiences. I wasn’t sure I believed her then, but I do now.

I love my real life most days, but my mind is still hungry to explore. And it wants to explore in much bigger ways than it did before. When I was younger, so much of my mind was filled with imagining things I’d never experienced–falling in love, kissing someone, having sex, seeing another country, seeing the ocean. Having experienced all those things hasn’t somehow made my imagination obsolete; it’s pushed it toward bigger questions, bigger explorations. I want to cram it full of history, theology, culture, and literature. I’ve always been curious, but feeling like I’ve got my own life figured out (for now!) has ignited that curiosity in a new way. A few nights ago, I went to see the new Star Trek movie with my husband and some of his friends. Although I was a fan of Star Trek when I was a teenager, it was because I was interested in the character relationships (and, admittedly, because so many Star Trek voices were featured on Gargoyles). This newest movie wasn’t great; it might have even veered toward downright bad. But it held my interest because I was fascinated by the idea of what it might feel like to be in space, that I was hungry for that vicarious exploration that I have neither the courage nor the means to ever explore in real life. The ocean captivates me in a similar way. So does God. These vast expanses that are so full of mystery that no amount of “real life” can ever close the case on them–at least, not my real life.

And I’ve learned that having real experiences doesn’t close of your imagination; it does feed it, just as my friend suspected. Experiences and learning and creating are addictive. They ignite the need for more experiences, more learning, more creativity, all the time.

Lately, I’ve started thinking about imaginative exploration in terms of attachment. Attachment theory shows that when an infant has a strong attachment to a caregiver, she is actually more capable of leaving that caregiver and exploring the world. What if this applies to flights of fancy as well as to meeting new people or applying for that job? Perhaps it’s because I feel so securely attached to my real life now, because I know that it’s here an it’s safe for me to come back to, that my mind can go further than it’s ever been able to go before.